McGinn on the tunnel: does he or doesn't he?

The mayor elect sends two signals that he's not exactly sound on the subject, despite the impression he gave in the last days of his campaign. He's playing with political fire.
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The proposed waterfront tunnel

The mayor elect sends two signals that he's not exactly sound on the subject, despite the impression he gave in the last days of his campaign. He's playing with political fire.

Updated at 7 pm Tuesday.

Mayor-elect Mike McGinn is playing a dangerous game on the waterfront tunnel, one that could mean the start of his administration will be more like the firing on Fort Sumter — the opening of real hostilities with the political establishment. On the other hand, people may be reading a little too much into these opening skirmishes, which may stem from rookie clumsiness more than calculation.

The first seismic tremor came Monday with a story in the Wall Street Journal. According to McGinn's spokesman, the money quote in the story, where McGinn says "Nothing has made me think the tunnel is a good idea," was given to the reporter just a week or so after the election in early November, so isn't a fresh broadside. Asked if it represented a new position, McGinn's office replied that it wasn't, and referred me to the mayor-elect's October 19 statement both opposing the tunnel decision and saying he'd work to enact it.

Even so, there was Mayor McGinn blasting the idea for all the nation to read. And there it was for nervous local tunnel backers to worry that the new mayor will continue to say he supports the tunnel (because it's an adopted policy of the city) while trashing it personally. That's a great way to scare off funders, contractors, and bond-holders. It's also a great way to keep his anti-tunnel supporters happy, of course.

So it now looks like McGinn's famous switcheroo on the tunnel, the one that gained him the mayor's office, is more of a straddle: I loathe the idea, but I promised to try to build it. In that case, the tunnel-backers, given the extreme difficulty of the task, had better find themselves a new champion, and fast.

Updated: I had thought that the tunnel-huggers had taken one such insurance policy by the creation of a committee of stakeholders (including some opponents such as Cary Moon), chaired by former Mayor Charles Royer, a tunnel man, and Seattle Art Museum chairwoman Maggie Walker, a newcomer to the Viaduct wars. That 30-plus group holds its first meeting at City Hall on Thursday at 3 pm. Its purpose, however, is rather narrow: to explore ways that the waterfront park can be designed, programmed, and funded — explicitly not getting into issues of the tunnel and transportation controversies. As with the famous Millennium Park in Chicago, this group will be looking at ways that the philanthropic community can get deeply involved with the new waterfront park.

The other tremor came on the issue of who pays for cost overruns. According to a story, McGinn is trying to get the legislature to clarify what it means by the murky language sticking Seattle taxpayers with cost overruns. Attorney General Rob McKenna probably could and should step in to clarify this, but he says he couldn't do that without being asked to do so. (Maybe the governor ought to ask?) The City Council, 9-0 in favor of the tunnel (though keep an eye on Nick Licata), does not want to risk a legislative ruling on the issue, lest it go the wrong way or, if it went the city's way, losing wavering votes in the legislature for the tunnel. So here too McGinn has a clever way to be pushing for a commonsensical measure that has the (unintended?) result of sinking the tunnel's delicate consensus.

That McGinn is willing to play these games so early in his administration (not actually even sworn in yet) is pretty darn daring. He must know that if he blows up the tunnel this early (rather than a patented long-drawn-out, Seattle-style mercy killing), his opponents in labor, downtown interests, Boeing, and Waterfront park partisans will figure that they've got a foe to be outflanked rather than a newbie to be courted. The most common interpretation among insiders: McGinn's mixed messages mostly indicate that he hasn't figured out how a mayor has to speak consistently and with care. Welcome to the first year of a rookie mayor.

Lastly, that issue of who pays for tunnel cost overruns may seem a silly bit of legislative mean-spiritedness that will never hold up in court. Probably it won't. But that's not the point. Contractors, sensing that there's uncertainly about the final recourse for payment once costs start doing what costs do, will be scared off or build in huge contingency factors in their bid. It's a killer clause.


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